I get buzzed up talking to Thomas Campbell. He has a mellow delivery but unpredictable answers. Like a frenetically elegant longboarder taking off on a wave. He’s the kind of guy who truly listens to a question and lets’ it bounce around in his head so that his answer is articulated as effectively as the words will allow — when in reality, as an artist, we may never really be able to see the same beauty that exists in his head, but he really wants you to. And his art and filmmaking illustrates that desire. But boy does he sure love trying to get you there, and I appreciate that. When he talks about wave riding, he truly has an appreciation for the art of riding them. Every detail. Psychologically, physically, and artistically. He really appreciates it and wants to show you why.
He’s currently working on a new film and orchestrated a trip that you’ll find in What Youth Issue 18 with Craig Anderson and Ryan Burch — two of his favorite wave sliders in the world — and we had the pleasure of chatting to him a bit about what he was working on, which you’ll find below, along with some more photos from the set with Craig and Ryan. —Travis
WHAT YOUTH: What made you want to put out another full-length surfing film? Do you remember your thought process on what sparked you to do another?
THOMAS CAMPBELL: I know the thought process for me, after making any of the surf movies I’ve made, my first thought is, “I’m never doing that again.”
That’s funny, Dane says the exact same thing to us about his films.
I think if you really care, and that you want to do something you feel really good about, making a surf film is just a lot to do and move through. I’ve made three films now and after every one I’ve felt the same way. And I’m happy about those ones. But I guess my feeling was…the ones I made before were… in a way educational. I made The Seedling and documented Joel Tudor riding longboards in a traditional and beautiful way — a way I don’t think a lot of people had seen before, or not that cohesively, because there’s other kinds of longboarding that I’m not interested in that I would never put in a movie, so I just wanted to boil it down to the marrow of the parts that I thought were interesting. And then you go to the next film Sprout and it shows longboarding and shortboarding and different kinds of surfboard designs, but all together in a way that a lot of people don’t see together in an inclusive context. And then there was The Present — which was an extension of that. And so, I just felt good about those things, and they were done in a traditional surf movie narrative fashion a la John Severson, Bruce Brown, John Witzig — who are all my idols — so it was in a classic surf film scenario but maybe with artistic flare. But anyway, I just felt compelled to make another film because I love documenting people who ride waves in an interesting way, but it was kind of awesome because I was like, “Oh, I don’t have to do what I already did!” and that allows me to explore the medium and be more expressive with it. Use less narrative and be more abstract. More visual. Really thinking about using the soundtrack and sculpting it from raw, live settings. And yeah, now that I’m talking about it, I’m so excited about where it can go, but I don’t want to define it yet.
What excites you about surfing right now? It’s a strange time (all times are strange in their own way) but right now the way we consume surfing is so different than other times, so what excites you about it?
The thing that excites me about it, is really, doing it. It’s a sensational activity, so, the sensations that I get to experience while doing it that’s the thing that keeps drawing me back to it. The thing that inspires or informs that are the certain people and the way they approach it. I just feel like the people I’m lucky enough to work with, especially on this film, and all my films, are people who make me go Pow! Oh Shit! If the, “Oh shit” factor isn’t there for me on some level, I probably wouldn’t invite them. For me, it’s just a personal thing. Whatever it is: a turn Bryce Young does. Or how Jared Mel approaches a wave —like, the wild man, like he’s a drunken master or something, like, “Whoa dude…what’s going to happen?” I think the “What’s going to happen!” thing is the most important thing for me. People who are predictable really are not my thing.
A lot of that is missing in competition in general. It’s hard to pinpoint what that is, but Jared is a good example and you do want to see what happens when he paddles in.
Yeah, I think it’s just the people that are really in the moment and expressing themselves. I think in competitive surfing the two people who made me want to watch competitive surfing over the last 10 years really, are Kelly and Dane. Because you just don’t know. I like John a lot, but I like John even more when it’s severe because he’s so good that when it’s not severe it doesn’t look that hard, but when it is severe you can see the corrections that are just like “Whoa…”
They’re so innate to him, but they’re so intense, but you see them when it’s big and severe.
Yeah, and people will think what ever people think, but I think Gabriel is a fucking master. He can do anything. And I think that’s interesting. But really the fact that Kelly’s not there, it makes me not want to watch it.
He’s such a master. He manipulates the situation. And he’s so in the moment.
Everyone else is just surfing, and Kelly has always been dealing with it on so many different levels. He’s picking it apart. You can tell how smart he is. I remember talking to Dane about it and he’s like “I hate it! I hate how he’s doing the thing he knows that people want to see.” And Dane’s the opposite. Dane’s complete, full, explosion every time. Where Kelly is a precise performer but with more talent than everyone. When you really break it down, they are the opposites of the spectrum. But I think that made it fascinating. I had never quantified that they were so opposite until that conversation. Now it’s like, of course you hate it [Dane], it’s the polar opposite of you.
And yeah, I think Dane frustrated Kelly in the same way a little bit. Perfect characters for surfing. Completely opposite.
When we first spoke about the film, you had mentioned that the words “Fevered Dreams” were intriguing in regards to the film, and sparked an image for the project. After a few surf trips now, how might that apply to the project?
I think that the overall feeling of what I’m going to try and achieve…hmmm…let’s see, I’m having to use words when I don’t want to. I think the Fevered Dream idea of it is still very much just an idea. I hope to invoke a transcendent quality that makes people think about surfing on multi-dimensional perspectives. We are multidimensional beings and are living multidimensionally. Maybe our culture and our society and our political and our economic systems tend to tie us down into a three dimensional scenario, but I think there is more and I’m interested in exploring that in feeling, not in a vocal narrative sense, but in a vibe.
In a world inundated with media clutter, what is it like being an artist and filmmaker in this climate? Are you still inspired to evoke the feeling?
I would say there’s a small percentage of me that’s confused by the strain of how a film like this, in this day and age, will move out into the world. But then I would just say there’s the most of me is not concerned. I love films, I love a 60-minute film. I thought this would be shorter, but I think it can be longer. I just feel if people don’t have the attention span for a longer form piece then fuck ’em, ya know? I really love the format of a movie that evolves and brings you in and takes you on a journey, and you need time to do that. This film could be one of the last bigger surf films on film. This film is 90 percent 16mm, and shot with multiple cameras. I feel that I love that format, and it translates the vibe and depth of the scenario. I’m not a digital hater, there is a little bit of RED used in this film, but film is a real gift that has become exponentially more expensive. Since the last movie it probably costs three times as much now…when it was already expensive. It’s fucking hard, excessively more hard now to travel around the world with a bunch of film because people don’t even know what it is. And you’re like, “You can’t open it.” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” You hope someone who’s been around more than seven years on the job comes around and explains what you do with it. But, yeah, I’m stoked on all of it, and we’re 80 percent done with shooting and there’s only one more trip to do that’s not so far away. And it should be good. And I’m really thankful.
Thomas Campbell’s new film and tour will be out summer 2018. And it will be worth the wait. Always is.
Check out the full photo feature in What Youth Issue 18, out now.